Day 55: Fiorenzuolo to Medesano (39 km)
During the 55 days on the Via Francigena there had only been a few days where it had been necessary to walk more than 30 km in one day. Each of those days had been challenging, and this day, where I would walk 39 km was to be no exception. I was nearing the Apennine Mountains which meant 25km would be covering hilly terrain. Wanting to give myself the best start for this difficult day I decided to leave Fiorenzuolo just after dawn. There was a surprising amount of activity in the town considering it was so early in the morning. Cafes were already open, and there was constant traffic on the Via Emilia, which was the most direct way out of the town. There was a wide shoulder to walk on but as trucks thundered by my heart seemed to thump just as loudly. I passed motels and service stations where I saw some familiar figures outside one hotel waving enthusiastically. It was the group of Germans, already up and ready for their walk to Fidenza. I knew that on this day I would leave them behind. An interesting aspect of walking a pilgrimage route is how you find yourself crossing paths with the same people for days at a time, but at a certain point one person will walk further in a day and so those familiar faces are left behind.
I was not walking on the official route, which made a wide detour to avoid the Via Emilia. I would have been more than pleased to walk on the longer route as it was no doubt quieter, safer and better signed but I couldn’t afford to walk the extra 5 km. An alternative to the official route was the one described in my Cicerone guidebook. This alternative route had been signed by another group who have published their own guide in Italian (Guida alla Via Francigena; Monica D’Atti, Franco Cinti), with the white and yellow stickers and white arrows. On the Via Emilia I couldn’t see any signs, but using GPS I found a right-hand turn onto a bridge that would bring me to the other side of the motorway. Once on the other side I saw a yellow arrow pointing in the direction I had just come from. These yellow arrows indicate the route to Santiago from Rome which is the opposite of the Via Francigena – I was on the right track.
It was a beautiful morning with a rainbow in the distance and cool temperatures. I passed a man running who stopped to talk to me. He confirmed I was on the right route and told me that he too had walked the Via Francigena, first from his home to Rome and then from his home to Canterbury. He said I just needed to stay on the road for another kilometre and then take a path off to the left. I followed his directions and once I reached this path there were many arrows and stickers. I therefore continued on my way to Fidenza confidently. On the route I passed one building of interest – the Abbazia di Chiaravalle della Colomba, a Cistercian monastery founded in 1135 by the same monks who had founded Clairvaux in France, which I had seen just over a month before. After the abbey I walked through field upon field passing through only one small town, Castelnovo Fogliani, where there was indeed a castle but it was hidden behind high walls. I was half-way to Fidenza and making good time. I had arranged to meet Eimear in Fidenza at 11 am and at 9.30 am she texted me to let me know that she had taken an early train from Fiorenzuola to Fidenza and so had already arrived. Looking forward to meeting her and having our customary breakfast of cappuccino and cornetto I felt a surge of motivation and pressed on at a good speed.
Although I was not on the official route I made my way to Fidenza quite easily and did not have to walk much on roads. I walked into the city on a cycle path on the Via Emilia, but unlike the approach to Piacenza where it was necessary to walk for thirty minutes through urban sprawl, I was in Fidenza very quickly. When I saw a sign for the cathedral I was surprised to find I had arrived. It was 10.30am and the first 17km of my 39 km day was behind me.
I called Eimear to let her know I had arrived and while I waited for her to join me I explored the beautiful cathedral, the Duomo di San Donnino. The cathedral is built over the tomb of San Donnino, a Roman soldier who was martyred in 299 AD. In the middle ages the town was called the Borgo di San Donnino and only started being called by its Roman name of Fidenza again in 1928. The façade of the cathedral is very striking, with two lions at the base of the columns supporting the porch. On the top of one of the columns is a statue of Saint Simon who is holding a parchment which indicates the way to Rome, a reminder that Fidenza has seen a long tradition of pilgrims walking the Via Francigena.
Eimear soon joined me and together we went looking for the office of the cathedral where we could receive the pilgrim stamp. We then crossed the piazza to the tourist office. I had been unable to get in touch with the pilgrim accommodation in Medesano where we were staying that night and wanted to enquire if there was an alternative. The tourist office was closed but a sign on the door directed us to the main square where there was tent set up for an event. A kind lady from the tourist office informed me that there was a problem with the pilgrim accommodation in Medesano but that an arrangement had been made with a bed and breakfast there for pilgrims. It was 25 euro per person and she called on my behalf to make a reservation. I was curious what the problem was with the pilgrim accommodation but couldn’t get any specific details. As a pilgrim with a budget for 79 days it is difficult when accommodation you had counted on falls through. Typically pilgrim accommodation is about 10 euro for a bed in Italy and 25 euros is quite a sharp increase. I hoped that these types of situations would not continue, particularly as I was using a scholarship fund to finance accommodation for the University of Kent students who walked with me. I had made sure I had some reserve funds, but I would spend those quite quickly if accommodation turned out to be 75% more expensive than I had estimated.
Eimear and I spent a lovely two hours in Fidenza which gave me a chance to rest after my morning’s walk, to have a proper breakfast and to buy some supplies for lunch – I was now ready to tackle the further 22 km to Medesano. Eimear of course was completely fresh so we really should have covered a lot of ground in the first few hours. We had only walked a few kilometres however, when we decided to stop for lunch at a scenic spot, motivated to lighten our rucksacks before we attempted to climb the series of hills we saw before us. As we started to climb out of the plain half an hour later we were afforded wonderful views of Fidenza as well as some rather intimidating clouds in the distance. Just as we reached the peak of the hill we were startled by a violent bolt of lightning and the crack of thunder which followed soon after. I had dodged storms before, and I encouraged Eimear to pick up speed. The electricity in the air and the rush of winds was quite thrilling to Eimear, but I assured her that being out in the open where we could potentially get struck by lightning, plus the likelihood of getting completely drenched with 15 km still to go was nothing to get excited about. We needed to either outwalk the storm or find some shelter. We walked another 5 km arriving at Borghetto just as large drops of rain started to fall and rushed up to the covered terrace of a restaurant moments before the heavens opened and sheets of rain fell onto the canvas awning.
As it turned out we were not the only pilgrims who had had a lucky escape. Five men with accompanying rucksacks were also taking shelter. They were from Verona and were walking the Via Francigena for four days from Fidenza to the Cisa Pass. They hoped to do a part of the Francigena each year until they finally reached Rome and joked that it would only take them 10 years. It was clearly a ‘guy’ trip and they were making the most of each other’s company. They decided to wait out the storm inside the restaurant sipping sparkling red wine and feasting on platters of sliced meats and cheeses. Eimear and I chose ice creams instead and could hear their constant banter coming from the back of the restaurant as we watched the awning outside flap violently in wind, the rain coming down in all directions. After half an hour we still couldn’t make a move. One of the men walked up to us with two glasses of wine in his hand and offered them to us. We thanked him, took the glasses and followed him to the large table where the group was seated. We exchanged our pilgrim stories of where we had started and how long we had been walking. Naturally my announcement that I had started in Canterbury almost two months before was met with some surprise. I was quizzed on how heavy my racksack was and duly scolded when I admitted it was far heavier than the recommended 10% of my bodyweight. I quickly changed the subject to our walking companion Francesco who was also from Verona. As it turned out, they had already met in Verona when they had gone to get their pilgrim credentials. I had learned from Francesco that to obtain pilgrim credentials in Italy is not as simple as going to an office and asking for them as I had done at Canterbury Cathedral. In Italy, as pilgrims take advantage of the hospitality offered by parishes, you need to prove, as Francesco described it, that you a ‘good person’. I’m not entirely sure how this is determined, and whether individuals are ever refused credentials, but I found it a curious difference to my own experience.
For those who have never walked a pilgrimage route before there is the valid concern of what is required of a pilgrim in order to be able to benefit from the accommodation and pilgrim menus offered on these routes. From my own experience on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and on the Via Francigena, most religious houses do not ask about your beliefs. You may be invited to attend mass, but it is emphasized that it is not required. On questionnaires that are collected for statistical purposes you are usually asked your motivation for walking – options include: spiritual, cultural, touristic, recreational. Regarding spiritual motivations, this is not the same as the spiritual reasons of medieval pilgrims – as penance for sins. Spirituality can be personally defined. For some it may mean to visit sacred places, and for others it is the clarity of mind that results in hours of self-reflection and contemplation.
Just as I was starting to wonder if we would be able to cover the final 14 km before it got dark the rain lifted though there was still dense cloud cover. We walked the 3.5 km with the group from Verona until we reached Costamezzano where we left them at the hostel. We stopped to say goodbye with kisses and wishes of ‘buon camino’. The noise of the group roused one of the hostel’s occupants who stuck his head out of the second floor window. Smiling down on us was Francesco. We waved goodbye, not knowing if we would ever see him again, and with some urgency continued up a steep incline out of the sleepy village.
We continued uphill for another 30 minutes and when we reached the top we realised that there was a descent and further climb ahead before we would reach Medesano. In the distance were some more threatening clouds which brought on an early dusk. As we began our final sharp ascent it was 5.30pm and the half-light of evening. Our heads were down as we plodded up the steep hill but one look up made me gasp with surprise as only 100 metres away, near the treeline of a small wood, I saw what could only have been a wolf. It was looking straight at me when I lifted my head, but quickly turned to run into the woods when our eyes met. The fact that it had fled so instantly meant I had no time to feel fear, but as I shared what I had seen with Eimear we both started to look around wondering if the other members of its pack could be nearby. I knew nothing about wolves in Italy and as the path took us by a wooded area I passed one of my poles to Eimear so she would have some means of defending herself in case another wolf was nearby. We did not see another wolf, but rather a peacock which surprised us by appearing out of the long grass, its bright feathers trailing behind it. Just as we entered the outskirts of the town the threatening clouds fulfilled their promise and it started to rain lightly, just enough to get us both quite wet, but it didn’t matter – we were almost there.
I had been told in Fidenza that the bed and breakfast was just off the park, so I stopped a lady to ask for directions. I was confused by her shocked expression but after she gave me directions it occurred to me that she must have thought, based on our vagabond appearance, that we planned on sleeping there. Eimear and I laughed over the thought as we pressed the buzzer at our B & B.
I couldn’t quite make out what it was that struck me as unusual about the B & B at first but then I took in the strange mix of furniture in the bedroom and piles of paper and knickknacks in the hall and I realised it felt too much like staying in someone’s home. It was however, perfectly comfortable and after such a long day it was a relief to collapse into bed that night. The next day was 29.5 km and involved a lot of climbing, about 1300 metres, as we made our way higher and deeper into the Apennine Mountains.
Day 56: Medesano to Cassio (29.5 km)
The next morning Eimear and I went down to breakfast at about 7.30am. The odd feeling I had had about the bed and breakfast the day before manifested itself in clear evidence as we were shown into the so-called breakfast room in which all the shutters were tightly closed, with the ceiling lights on, and a few tables piled with rich chocolate biscuits and packet sponge cakes. We were brought coffees by the owner and left to sit in the gloom of the room. I looked at the double patio doors wondering if it would cause a lot of trouble if I asked to open them. I took the risk and my request was met with a confused expression but then he opened the shutters just enough to let in some daylight. Many surfaces of the room were covered in empty beer bottles and had caught Eimear’s interest. The owner noticed and asked her if she liked beer. I translated the question and Eimear nodded her head enthusiastically. The man’s face lit up and he motioned for her to follow him. I decided to stay with my coffee rather than accompany Eimear down into the basement. A few minutes later they both emerged and Eimear explained with a look of incredulity that in the basement there were in fact hundreds, if not thousands of bottles of beer. She showed me the pictures she had taken and it appeared like a supply sufficient to see him through an apocalypse. The oddity of this bed and breakfast was firmly established.
We didn’t leave Medesano until just before 10 am as I had needed to take advantage of the Wifi before we entered the mountains, where no doubt I would not find access for at least the following two days. The first part of the day was quite flat and the path was for the most part alongside the river Taro. The riverbed was extremely wide, sometimes over 100 metres but there was little water flowing in the centre. Looking up into the mountains ahead I could well imagine how much water undoubtedly rushed into the valley during an Italian rainstorm. When we crossed the long bridge over the river in Fornovo di Taro 9 km into our journey we found a pilgrim rest area with a seat and an interactive screen where pilgrims could find out about the region and practical information such as hotels and restaurants. We took advantage of the seat and the supermarket nearby to have a picnic lunch. We were just finishing when we saw Francesco crossing the bridge. He of course had made an early start from Costamezzano and so had caught up with us. Francesco however, was only going a further 8 km to Sivizzano whereas we still had 20 km to go. We didn’t have time to stop and chat. We had to push on to make sure we got to the hostel before it got too late.
After Fornovo di Taro we started to climb almost immediately and a light rain began to fall. Similar to the day before, the cloud cover created the sensation that it was later than it really was. At four pm it felt like dusk and the rain became heavier. Because of the intense climb we needed to stop for a few breaks, despite the rain and the fact it was getting late. We first took a break in Svizzano where we found a café open. It was a great relief to be able to sit somewhere dry and to have a hot coffee, even if it was just a caffe’ macchiato. Stopping for longer than we should, we finally plucked up the courage to go back out into the rain and continue on the route out of Svizzano. On the road we were presented with two options. One was a trail that led off the road to the left over what looked like a small river that would require wading through. The woods looked dense and we did not have the time or energy to face walking on uneven ground or for fording rivers so we took the second option which continued on the road. There was little traffic, but as the road wound up through the valley there were many blind bends. We were careful to switch sides of the road to remain as visible as possible to traffic. We had to concentrate quite a bit due to the twisting road and poor visibility. I was however, paying attention to something else as well.
On the side of the road I had noticed signs stating that this was a no-hunting area as the local authorities were attempting to repopulate the area. This could of course have referred to deer, but I knew for a fact that wild boar could be found in the Apennines and I had always wanted to see a wild boar. In these conditions it seemed conceivable that boar would be out grazing in the open, feeling safe in the dim light. When I saw two large brown blobs in the tall grass however, it was in no way obvious to me what I was looking at. I tried to work out what they could be thinking they were too fat to be deer and too short to be cows. Just then a little snout appeared over the grass as one of the boar lifted its head. I called out excitedly to Eimear as I dug in my pockets for my phone. My camera unfortunately was buried in my rucksack to protect it from the rain. Eimear’s reaction was more of fear and reservation rather than interest which is quite normal as boar do have the reputation for being aggressive, but they were quite far away and as soon as they became aware of us they started to run towards the woods. We could just make out two adults and three babies but they disappeared from view within seconds. I was so excited by the sighting that it took me a while to realise that this confirmed my suspicion that there were wild boar in the area and that, although those boar were at a safe distance, we could potentially come across others as we continued further up into the mountains. I started looking into the long grass of the fields more intently, wondering how many could be around us.
Wild boar were the furthest thing from my mind a half an hour later however, when Eimear and I started a steep ascent on a woodland trail. The trail was badly washed out and we had to step very carefully on loose rocks, slippery from the rain that was still coming down quite heavily. Just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other we were unprepared for what we then experienced in the deep woods. From out of thick brush came with no warning a low, loud and threatening growl. The sound was unmistakable and Eimear and I became so instantly terrified that we didn’t even look at each other to confirm what we had both heard. We knew in that moment we were in danger and stood back to back starring into the undergrowth where we had heard the sound. I held my poles ready to defend us from the menace that I expected to charge us at any moment. I couldn’t make out any creature in the poor light and amidst the dark brown of the earth and branches and the sound of the rain falling meant we heard noises all around us. We couldn’t have been in a worse position. There was a rock face five metres to our left and a steep decline with thick brush to our right. We knew that an animal would feel trapped in this situation. Eimear wanted to run, but I didn’t know where to run to. If we ran up the path we could run straight at the animal. I searched my brain for any information I had ever read of what to do in this situation and standing still seemed the only option. I handed a pole to Eimear and we waited. The situation was completely unreal to me, and to make it even stranger in that moment we started to hear a helicopter in the distance. We could hear it getting louder and louder until it was directly overhead. I was convinced that the noise would terrify the boar, for that is what I thought was lurking in the woods. I was tense and alert but a self-defence mechanism had rid me of any fear. Images of a those tusks coming out of the woods was clear in my mind and I was ready. The sound of the helicopter started to fade until all we could hear were the heavy raindrops hitting the leaves. As we heard no sound of movement we decided to start slowly up the path, still attentive with poles extended. We finally made it out into a more open space where we found a picnic bench. Feeling safe we took off our rucksacks and started to breath normally again. What had it been? Where had it gone? We would never know. The adrenaline was still coursing through our bodies and we both had an intense desire to be out of the rain and woods and somewhere warm and safe.
The hostel was not much further now. As per usual we did not know what we would find there but we fervently hoped that it would be warm, have nice hot showers and comfortable beds. The day had been one of the most difficult days on the Via Francigena – not only for the distance and the amount of climbing but also for the weather and the fact that the temperature dropped quite dramatically just as the road started to level out. We were wet through and my hands were rigid with cold. The experience in the woods had tipped us just a bit over our level of endurance and we were in desperate need of some comforts.
We saw nothing but the valley below as we followed the road around the curves of the mountain until finally, Cassio appeared around a bend in the road! Going past the turn to the centre of the town we found the Ostello della Via Francigena on the righthand side, its door wide open and welcoming. I knocked and called out as I entered and was greeted by an exclamation of surprise. It was past 6pm and I think the owner had given up hope that we would arrive. He said as much as he shook my hand and welcomed us in. Seeing from our faces that we had had a long day he said we could show him our credentials later and led us up two flights of stone steps up to the top floor. He opened the door to a cosy room with a double and single bed and a sofa. There was a coffee maker on the table and a large stuffed bunny on the sofa. The bed was covered in a floral bedspread with soft cushions on top. It had clearly been decorated with care. Our prayers had been answered! Andrea, the owner of the hostel, left us to get settled and went back downstairs. I went to look for him a few minutes later to ask about Wi-Fi and found him by the entrance hall. He gave me a short tour of the hostel and as we stepped into a dining room I couldn’t believe my eyes. On every surface I found bottles of wine, baskets of cheese and fruit, beers and spirits. My mouth open I followed Andrea into the breakfast room and kitchen where he proudly opened the fridge and cupboards to reveal pasta, sauces, cereals, yoghurts, meats, juices and all you would expect to find in a small shop. I was invited to enjoy anything I cared to have and all he asked was that we leave a donation in the amount we thought appropriate. I rushed upstairs to tell Eimear about the delights that awaited us downstairs.
After showering and changing we went down together to explore further. In the dining room we found Belgian pilgrim Ludo, who was walking Rome to Canterbury, and Maria, an Italian lady in her sixties walking to Rome. When I told Ludo my name was Julia and I was walking from Canterbury he practically jumped with enthusiasm and said ‘Ah! You are the famous Julia!’ Apparently he had met an Australian lady while he was walking through Tuscany who was reading my blog and she had told him to look out for me.
We decided to make dinner together and had the excitement of small children at Christmas as we selected our menu from the ingredients we found on the shelves. Maria volunteered to make pasta, Ludo opened a bottle of wine and Eimear and I started to cut up some of the cheese and toasted slices of bread for an appetiser. As we sat down to enjoy the meal it felt like I had found myself in a fairytale. A little house with rooms full of bunkbeds covered in pink gingham with giant stuffed animals, sitting at the top of a mountain surrounded by heavy mist. Food on every surface as if it had been left by fairies, to be magically replenished once we had all gone to bed. We enjoyed two bottles of wine and ate until we could eat no more. Ludo set the mood with his high spirts and animated mannerisms. His English was characterised by an excessive use of the gerund and Eimear and I couldn’t help but smile as he told stories of his journeys walking in France and Germany with many ‘I looking’ ‘I doing’ ‘I going’. This peculiar form of English only added to the strangeness of it all. I could never have imagined such an end to that day on the Via Francigena. Eimear and I went up to our little room under the wooden eaves and slept deeply and peacefully looking forward to returning to the dreamworld below for breakfast.
Day 57: Cassio to Passo della Cisa (18.5 km)
The next morning we woke to a power failure in Cassio. There was a thick mist around the town obscuring the view of the valley far below and without electricity we truly felt like we had stumbled into a fabled land. The gas stove in the kitchen meant we could still have coffee for breakfast which warmed us up from the chill of the unheated house. It was quite cold outside and we procrastinated in leaving the comforts of our little house. We left just after 9am as we had an appointment at 12pm to meet Eimear’s cousin Emily in Berceto, 9 km away. Emily lives and works in Rome and was going to walk with us for three days. We chose to continue on the road to Berceto, rather than take the path as I had received a text message from Brian, who was one day ahead of me, advising me that the trail to Berceto was under water. There was little traffic, which was fortunate as the combination of the winding road and misty conditions could have made our journey quite dangerous. As we entered Berceto we left the main road to descend into the town centre where we passed three men draped in ponchos and laden with rucksacks. They were certainly pilgrims so we wished each other ‘buon camino’ as we passed, each party too intent on their destination to stop and chat. Eimear and I were ready for another coffee and a warm place to sit out of the rain. Emily had sent Eimear a message that she would arrive in Berceto in just 45 minutes. It was no easy thing to get from Rome to a remote place in the mountains, and on a Sunday no less. I was very impressed that she had managed it. Her journey didn’t end at the train station however, as I was told in a café that the Berceto train station was 12 km away from the centre and that only a few buses run on a Sunday. Before we had time to think of a solution Emily wrote that she was almost there. Her resourcefulness meant she had found someone at the station who was coming up to the town and had offered her a ride. Suddenly there she was, walking past the window of the café.
As we continued walking up to the hostel on top of the pass Emily and I had a chance to get to know each other. She took to the spirit of the camino very naturally, walking at a good pace and relaxed and enthusiastic about what she would find on the route on the next three days. It seemed cruel that she was starting when it was raining and on 9km of a constant uphill climb but the advantage of walking on the road was that the ascent was extremely gradual. Emily studied botany at university and is currently working at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome so her interests in fauna and flora were well catered to on this section of the Via Francigena. She has an incredible ability to identify birdcalls and walking with her brought an entirely new dimension of appreciation for where I was walking. She had brought her binoculars with her and was trying to catch sight of some of the birds she heard, but the woods were very dense around us and the mist made it even more challenging to see them. As we gained more elevation the mist thickened until it became difficult to make out much further than a few metres in front of us. We had been walking just over two hours and so I expected to see the Ostello della Cisa at any time. We hadn’t seen any buildings for at least an hour until finally a large shape appeared in the mist. It was a huge solid construction of stone sitting within a garden, designed for picnics and barbeques. In the cold wet mist it was impossible to imagine such summery scenes. The building looked closed and uninhabited. We did in fact find the door locked but there was an envelope on the floor addressed ‘to pilgrims’. Inside was a key with which I tried unsuccessfully to open the door. The key went around and around in the lock without opening. I turned to the right then the left getting increasingly more frustrated until there was a sound from the inside and the door opened. I came face to face with one of the pilgrims we had passed in Berceto. A Frenchman as it turned out, who was walking with his two friends for 10 days on the Via Francigena. He explained that the owners of the hostel had left a note inviting us to choose a room and that they would arrive at 7pm. The great house begged to be explored as we climbed up the thick stone stairs and walked through the many rooms each with several beds or bunkbeds. We settled on a room in the front of the house where three beds had been made up in preparation for our arrival. There was no heating and with solid stone floors and walls the house should have been as cold as the exterior temperature, but there seemed to be some mystical heat source that kept the chill out of the rooms. When I had called the day before to reserve the beds I had not been asked if we wanted to have dinner at the hostel, but now that it was clear that there was no other option I was anxious to confirm that we required a meal. There was no service inside the house for my mobile but I discovered I received a few bars at the back of the house if I stood near the window. We were able to call the owners and they said that they had already assumed we would be eating there.
Our minds put at rest we had showers and changed and went downstairs to the sitting room. Inside the small cosy room we found all three of the Frenchmen. They were very interested in where we came from and where we had walked from. I tried to leave Eimear to answer their questions while I got some writing done as I was so behind on my blog my readers must have thought I was still in Switzerland! Sitting with a laptop in a room full of pilgrims is quite anti-social behaviour and it seemed such a shame to miss out on such an essential part of a pilgrim’s experience. Writing in France had been a pleasure, as it had kept me connected to family and friends and even perfect strangers who were in this way sharing my experience. Now that I was finding companionship on the road, writing required me to isolate myself from other pilgrims and I learned this night on the Cisa Pass that this went entirely against the purpose of the blog. Although I tried to keep up, from this point on my blog fell further and further behind for the simple reason that I was so busy experiencing the Via Francigena I didn’t have time to write about it.
Owners Fausto and Caterina soon arrived and started cooking wonderful delights in the kitchen. Fausto also came into the sitting room and lit the wood stove which filled the room with delightful warmth. The mist now thick outside the window we were a merry bunch, warm as toast, sitting at a long table enjoying a three-course meal, with wine and conversation flowing in equal measure, one no doubt helped by the other. Fausto was delighted to discover that Emily and I speak Italian and started to tell a story about how his lack of English had caused some confusion one day in the hostel.
A German couple had arrived at the hostel the year before, the woman in tears but the husband quite calm. The woman explained to Fausto that she had lost her ‘little dog’. He asked in broken English how this had happened and the woman explained that the dog had been in her bag and had fallen out while they were walking on the trail. Eager to help this woman who was clearly distressed he had proposed that he walk the trail from one direction and her from the other to look for the dog. ‘What is its name?’ he asked. ‘Bernard’, she answered. As Fausto told the story he had walked on the trail for two hours calling out for Bernard until he met with the woman. She was smiling and yelled out ‘I found him’. In her hands was a small Saint Bernard stuffed animal – yes, for two hours he had been calling for a stuffed animal. ‘It is very important,’ Fausto concluded, ‘to speak English.’ I translated this story into French for Eimear and the Frenchmen and they were able to join in with our laughter. In such good company the evening passed far too quickly and it was soon time to make our way upstairs to the thick duvets for a good night’s sleep. The next day on the Via Francigena promised the delights of The Cisa Pass and Tuscany!